Blessed are the caregivers

Several months ago, after settling into my seat for a plane flight, I looked up the aisle and noticed a physically slight older woman lugging along a large man, and he was basically leaning on her back as they moved forward. She led him to their seats and attended to his seatbelt. Later, when he had to use the restroom, she helped him to get up, and once again he leaned on her back as they made their way to the front of the plane.

The man appeared to be severely developmentally disabled, and she was his caregiver, probably his mom. In her eyes I saw what I can only describe as a tired yet peaceful sense of devotion and acceptance.

It so happened that I was traveling that day to visit a dear friend who is caring for her father who has Alzheimer’s. Because of her selflessness, this good man is living comfortably at home, enjoying his favorite meals, watching football games, and having someone tuck him into bed every night with a hug.

Every day and night, millions of people around the world are rendering emotionally and physically demanding labor without pay, serving as caregivers to loved ones with illnesses or disabilities. It is hard work that tugs at the heartstrings. Oftentimes it is a manifestation of pure love and commitment.

34 million

According to a fact sheet prepared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 34 million people are serving as unpaid caregivers in the U.S. alone. Here are a few key facts and figures:

  • “An estimated 21% of households in the United States are impacted by caregiving responsibilities (NAC, 2004).”
  • “Unpaid caregivers provide an estimated 90% of the long-term care (IOM, 2008).”
  • “Caregivers report having difficulty finding time for one’s self (35%), managing emotional and physical stress (29%), and balancing work and family responsibilities (29%) (NAC, 2004).”
  • “About 73% of surveyed caregivers said praying helps them cope with caregiving stress, 61% said that they talk with or seek advice from friends or relatives, and 44% read about caregiving in books or other materials (NAC, 2004).”

Furthermore, caregiving is a very gendered role, with women bearing the heaviest proportion of these responsibilities. Often they are doing so while sacrificing opportunities to pursue careers and engage in income-producing work.

A preview of the future

As I read about the challenges we face with an aging population, among the emerging points of clarity is that our ability to keep people alive has far outstripped our current resources and systems to provide affordable, dignified long-term care to those who need it, especially without exhausting their caregivers.

This reality dovetails with projections of sharply increasing numbers of people needing such help, especially those suffering from Alzheimer’s and other disabling conditions.

We must reorient our priorities if we are to avoid the specter of an aging population withering away in terrible living conditions and lacking dignified care, with burned out caregivers trying to fill the many voids. This will include controlling the costs of respite and long-term care, while at the same time offering living wages to health care attendants and providing financial support for those who take on unpaid caregiving responsibilities.

In an era of limited financial resources for the vast majority of the population, this will not be easy. It will require, among other things, that we rethink what is important in our lives and for our society.

Unsung heroes

Anyway, the main purpose of this piece is not to engage in a public policy discussion, as necessary as it happens to be. Rather, it is to recognize that caregivers are among the unsung heroes of our everyday lives. They are doing work of a higher order, and they deserve our praise, thanks, and support.

Roundup: On legacy work, transitions, and the march of time

Dear readers, I’ve brought together some past articles that highlight themes of legacy work, personal transitions, and the benefits and challenges of growing older. Many of these pieces discuss books that may be of value to those who want to drill deeper into the subjects. I’ve included snippets from the original posts to give you a sense of each, and you can click on the titles to read the full articles. Especially for those of you who are both reflecting on the past and contemplating changes for the future, I hope they will be of interest!

What’s your legacy work? (And how can you de-clutter your way to it?) (2011)

What is your legacy work? In other words, how do you want to make your mark on the world? This potentially life-changing inquiry is a core idea of a book I’ve recommended in recent posts . . . , Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World (2010). . . . Guillebeau poses two simple questions: “What do you really want to get out of life?” “What can you offer the world that no one else can?” . . . In addition, I highly recommend Brooks Palmer’s Clutter Busting: Letting Go of What’s Holding You Back (2009) . . .. Palmer nails the psychology of how our material clutter frustrates our ability to live in the present and for the future.

What is a “Ulyssean adult,” and how can you become one? (2012)

What kind of life do you want to live? And as age creeps up on you, how do you want to spend the rest of your life? . . . I recently discovered an intriguing book about adult development, The Ulyssean Adult: Creativity in the Middle & Later Years (1976), by the late John A.B. McLeish, a Canadian education professor. . . . Judging from The Ulyssean Adult, McLeish was not a warm and fuzzy self-help writer. His observations can be sharp-edged and may cause discomfort, as he was not one to pull punches.

Does life begin at 46? (2010)

Conventional wisdom about life’s journey, suggests The Economist magazine, is that our path is “a long slow decline from sunlit uplands towards the valley of death.” If so, then why is the cover of the magazine’s year-end issue headlined “The joy of growing old (or why life begins at 46)” . . . Conventional wisdom, according to research, is wrong. True, we start off our adulthoods pretty happy and become increasingly disenchanted as middle age approaches. However, our outlook then gets better as we age. The Economist cites research studies to back up its proposition, overcoming the presumption that this is more Boomer-inspired babble about how 60 is the new 40.

What will be your body of work? (2009)

We often hear “body of work” invoked when assessing an individual’s creative, artistic, or athletic endeavors, as in looking at the career of a great musician, writer, or baseball player. . . . But I’ve come to realize that we all produce our own body of work, even if we are not famous artists or athletes. It may include work we are paid for, but it also may capture our contributions as parents, friends, caregivers, volunteers, and members of the community.

How’s this for an epitaph? “She lived a balanced life” (2011)

Ultimately, aren’t we — and the world — better off for having made a positive difference in some way? You know, like starting a company, raising a family, helping those in need, contributing to the community, or inventing or creating or making or fixing something? As I see it, work-life balance should remain a priority for employment relations, but when it comes to individual lives, we need to embrace a much deeper set of questions. After all, does anyone really want to be remembered for having “lived a balanced life”?

Transitions and inner callings (2014)

A lot of people who find their way to this blog are in transitional stages of their work lives, often because of bad experiences at a current or previous job. Some are contemplating a change of employers or even vocations. What’s next? Concrete stuff like finances and living expenses obviously come into play, and the practical challenges of paying the bills may compete with attempts to engage in big picture thinking about one’s life. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t avoid looking inward, in some cases digging deep to turn a setback into an opportunity to consider and create options. For those in this position, William Bridges’s Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (rev. ed., 2004) may be very useful.

The lessons of nostalgia (2011)

Charles D. Hayes, is a retired, largely self-educated writer and practical philosopher whose books and essays on finding meaning in life remain hidden classics. He recently posted to his September University blog a superb essay, “Nostalgia: Why the Past Matters” . . . , in which he makes the case for returning to and understanding our past in constructive ways, rather than with mere soggy sentiment. . . .  As one enters middle age, it’s natural to resist any mental associations with aging — and that resistance may extend to reading reflective advice for “older folks.” However, one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned over the years is to welcome the wisdom of those who have been on this planet a little longer than me. Charles Hayes writes mainly for those we might call “seniors,” but his potentially larger audience includes anyone who wants to pursue a life of meaning and authenticity.


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Recycling: Five years of June

With some 1,100 articles posted to this blog since its founding in late 2008, each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month of each past year. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each piece I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

June 2013: What makes someone a potential workplace bullying target? — Taking issue with the notion that there’s a prototypical bullying target.

It’s true that some bullying targets may project a vulnerability that attracts aggressors like moths to a flame. (Or, perhaps “sharks to prey” is the better imagery…) But over the past decade, I’ve become familiar with so many workplace bullying stories that this profile simply doesn’t hold up as the sole or primary scenario. I’ve also seen too many instances where even the strongest of individuals have their breaking points. Under the wrong circumstances, any of us can be rendered awfully vulnerable.

June 2012: Collegiate reflections: Studying the liberal arts — More of my case for a liberal arts education.

But I believe it is more than soggy reflection that causes me to urge the value of a liberal arts education. By connecting our lives to our culture and society, and by enhancing our understanding of how we can shape both, we may live richer existences as human beings and participate in our communities with a deeper sense of perspective. At a time when sound bites and “messaging” too often replace serious thought, that’s pretty good “value” in my book.

June 2011: The American academic response to workplace bullying: A grounded orientation — Cutting-edge research and analysis on workplace bullying, by and large, has come from academe’s grassroots rather Ivy-type institutions.

However, whereas some social problems attract gobs of attention from those affiliated with elite academic institutions, the American academic response to workplace bullying has been driven, for the most part, by professors holding appointments at state and regional private universities. I believe this is a telling reason why so much of the important scholarly work concerning workplace bullying has genuine real world application.

June 2010: The good vacation and why it matters — Americans would benefit by being able to take more genuine vacation time.

Should we be taking the topic of vacations this, well, seriously? At least for Americans, the answer is yes. We take much less vacation time than our counterparts in Europe and other parts of the world. In some nations, paid vacation time is a legal right. Our workaholic culture is regarded by many as unhealthy and misguided. It’s the less attractive flipside of our willingness to dig into work and get the job done. Google the phrase Americans vacation time and you’ll get countless hits to surveys, studies, and analyses on this phenomenon.

June 2009: The Tyranny of Word: How Microsoft Hurts Office Productivity — When features of popular word processing software change with each new edition, the primary impact is more time sucked into learning the changes, not greater productivity.

The best word processing program ever developed, in my opinion, was WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS, released in 1989. It was fast and clean, with lots of bells & whistles for its day. Once you learned how the function keys operated, you could fly through a document as fast as your fingers could type. In terms of document formatting, it did what you wanted it to, rather than what some control freak programmer assumed you wanted it to do.

Recycling: Five years of Mays

Dear readers, with some 1,100 articles posted to this blog since its founding in late 2008, on a monthly basis I’m going to reach into the archives to highlight a piece from the corresponding month of each past year. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they will provide interesting and useful reading. For each piece I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

May 2013: Suicide and the Great Recession: Will we heed the tragic warnings?

In this era of the Great Recession, suicide has become a leading cause of death in America, especially among the middle-aged, and it is to our shame as a society that this reality is not an ongoing, dominant focus of our attention.

…Suicide is a scary, intimidating, and complicated topic, and it makes many of us uneasy. But a nation’s suicide rates should be among the prime indicators of its collective health and well-being. We need to “own” these statistics, understand what’s behind them, and do our best to respond to them. This will enhance our lives a lot more than obsessing over stock market reports and enabling corporations whose leaders don’t give a hoot about the rest of us.

May 2012: Trickle-down abuse: Workplace bullying, depression, and kids

We know that severe workplace bullying can trigger or exacerbate clinical depression in its targets. But that’s not all: In making our case for taking this form of abuse seriously, we also need to acknowledge how children become the secondary victims of bullying-induced depression.

…Bullying-induced depression can impact parental care provided by mothers and fathers alike. But I suggest that there’s a disparate impact on women. Let’s connect the dots….

…In other words, the evidence suggests that we’ve got a cohort of bullied, depressed moms out there, and the pain of their experience at work is being passed on to their kids at home.

May 2011: What policy objectives should workplace bullying legislation advance?

With growing discussion about the enactment of workplace bullying legislation occurring both in the U.S. and in other nations, it is fitting to identify some of the broad objectives that any such law should be designed to further.

When I was drafting the Healthy Workplace Bill, I identified a cluster of public policy goals that should inform the substance of an anti-bullying law. These four figured most prominently….

May 2010: Embracing Creative Dreams at Midlife

Dreams die hard is something of an old chestnut, but having entered the heart of midlife, I am thankful that this often is true. I think especially of creative energies waiting to be tapped and unleashed, perhaps after some of life’s other priorities and responsibilities have been addressed, and pursued with the benefit of experience and maturity.

Two long-time friends come to mind when I ponder this….

May 2009: Star Trek: To bold embrace passions…or to obliterate work-life balance?

With Star Trek and its heirs, life on a starship is all encompassing. The officers and crew live where they work. There rarely is such a thing as a “vacation,” unless beaming down to a planet that may serve up life-threatening beings or diseases counts as Club Med or the French Riviera. Alas, to my knowledge, none of the Star Trek incarnations feature an employee assistance program or union shop steward to address issues of overwork or chronic stress.



Summer reading 2013


During the academic year, much of my reading tends to be work-related, and I have less of an attention span for books read purely for pleasure. While this summer is busy with writing projects and conference speaking obligations, one way I’m trying to remedy my chronic work-life imbalance is by making time for some good books. A core notion about “summer reading” is that instead of being a “must-read” or a “should-read,” it should be an “I-want-to-read.” Here are four I’m delighted to have on that list:

Given that it’s now officially summer, it’s fitting that one selection is a baseball book, Cait Murphy’s colorful and fascinating Crazy ’08 (2007), a vivid account of the 1908 major league baseball season. It is widely recognized as being among the best of the recent books about the National Pastime, and the first few chapters were all I needed to understand why. For a history buff and lover of baseball nostalgia, it’s an enormously appealing non-fiction narrative.


I just finished a binge re-watch of the excellent 2009 HBO mini-series “John Adams,” starring Paul Giamatti as John Adams and Laura Linney as Abigail Adams. The mini-series takes us from the Revolutionary era into the early 1800s. It’s based on celebrated historian David McCullough’s prize-winning biography, John Adams (2001), and now I want to read the book. The other day I dipped into the opening chapter, and I could hear McCullough’s rich, distinctive voice as I read.

Good portions of the book’s early chapters are set in Massachusetts, whose colonists (including Adams) were central towards agitating, planning, and fighting for American independence. Many years ago, I went to hear McCullough speak about this era at Boston’s historic Old South Meeting House, which served as a public meeting hall for the rebellious locals. He was so taken by the opportunity to give a talk on that topic in this historic site that he began by opening his arms and happily proclaiming, “Aren’t we lucky to be here?!”


I tend to limit my fiction reading to mysteries, espionage, suspense, and the occasional horror novel. The only novel and new title highlighted here is Stephen King’s Joyland (2013), a coming-of-age tale set in 1973 about a young man who works at an amusement park. King intentionally limited its initial publication to a printed paperback format, his personal ode to a time when good pulp fiction helped to pass the summer.

I read a lot of Stephen King’s earlier books years ago, but only recently rediscovered him. While I haven’t consumed even a majority of his works, I regard him as one of the most gifted popular storytellers of our time.


Finally, there’s Bruce D. Schneider’s Energy Leadership (2007). (I guess I can’t completely escape work-related reading!) Starting with the story of how a struggling, low-morale company was rescued and transformed, Schneider writes about how the personal energy we bring to our work can change organizations for the better. As long-time readers of this blog are well aware, I spend a lot of time examining how to respond to the personal damage done by toxic organizations. This book considers the possibilities for staging turnarounds.

With the exception of the Schneider book, it’s a Book-of-the-Month Club-ish list, isn’t it? What can I say — I’m a middlebrow type of guy at heart. I’m willing to wade through some difficult stuff for work purposes, but for personal reading I like to be entertained even as I’m being educated. These aren’t the only genres that attract my attention, but they consistently have occupied my bookshelves for pretty much my entire adult life.

“Follow your bliss”? Parsing Joseph Campbell’s famous advice

I recently began delving into the works of Joseph Campbell (1904-87), whose writings and lectures on mythology, faith traditions, and the world’s societies made him a singular authority on the human experience. Campbell first appeared on the radar screens of many people via a PBS series of televised interviews with Bill Moyers — “The Power of Myth” — that first aired in 1988.

Campbell’s intellectual depth and breadth were remarkable. His work mixed academic disciplines, especially literature, theology, history, anthropology, and psychology, in examining the stories and myths that create surprising commonalities among our different cultures. Even though he was a professor for many years at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, he connected the dots in ways that few people residing in the silos of academe ever manage.

Follow your bliss

Campbell’s most famous advice, repeated on many occasions, was follow your bliss. He suggested that following our bliss will lead us to the life paths that have been awaiting us. When we reach this point, opportunities and connections seem to materialize. In the PBS series, Campbell replies to a Moyers question about whether “hidden hands” guide and facilitate our work once we’ve found our path:

All the time. It is miraculous. I even have a superstition that has grown on me as the result of invisible hands coming all the time — namely, that if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open doors to you. . . .

Getting real

As an educator, Campbell’s advice is music to my ears. Throughout my career as a law professor and lawyer, I’ve encouraged law students to discover and pursue their passions. After all, the most satisfied lawyers are those whose work engages them, and I want my students to discover their true vocations.

And yet, I realize that follow your bliss can disintegrate easily into the most banal forms of encouragement. Joseph Campbell was not a superficial person, but his signature line is tailor made for every soon-to-be-forgotten commencement speech, from junior high to graduate school.

Furthermore, let’s acknowledge that many of us who might encourage others to follow their bliss are among those for whom that philosophy has more or less worked. In the meantime, there are other folks who have tried to follow Campbell’s advice and encountered frustration and disappointment, despite their best efforts.

Indeed, one of the myths generated by an ever-growing pile of self-help books and seminars is that if you just work hard enough at it, you can realize all your dreams. Campbell easily can be misread to suggest that. And nowadays, with the success of books such as The Secret, that message has devolved to suggest that if you simply wish for something to come true, it will.

Finally, remember what psychologist Abraham Maslow said about how basic survival needs must be met before we’re able to strive toward reaching our full human potential? Let’s understand that for those who are struggling mightily just to put food on the table and to keep a roof over their heads, these higher level aspirations may appear as far away as the moon.


Nevertheless, following one’s bliss remains a worthy objective and philosophy, whether for a young person just graduating from high school, an adult recovering from a personal setback, or a retiree who feels there is some unfinished good business before her. This is what fills our lives with hope, zest, and maybe even joy, right?

And if the idea of discovering and following one’s path in life resonates with you, perhaps you’ll benefit by taking a deeper look at Campbell’s work.

But be advised that you have to be open to this stuff, and on this point I speak from personal experience. Ten years ago I would’ve unfairly dismissed Campbell’s observations about mythology, legends, and stories as a lot of babble, but today I welcome his worldly insights. I’m especially appreciative that he brings these insights to the level of helping us understand our places on this planet. This is no small gift for anyone who is trying to create a more meaningful life.


To learn more

“The Power of Myth” PBS series, featuring Joseph Campbell being interviewed by Bill Moyers, is probably the best introduction to Campbell and his work.

The Joseph Campbell Foundation is an excellent source of information and offers free registration. This extended bio of Campbell is a nice complement to the PBS series.


Hat tip to career coach and consultant Terry Del Percio for urging me, during the course of a Facebook exchange, to finally break open and watch “The Power of Myth” DVDs that I had purchased months ago.

Memo to self: “I’m swamped” may be a self-imposed condition

This piece is especially for fellow academicians and others who find that work-life balance often turns into an anxious work-life blend.

At the recent “Work and Well-Being 2012” conference in Chicago (sponsored by the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program of the American Psychological Association), Larissa Barber, an organizational psychology professor at Northern Illinois University, gave a thought-provoking talk on work-life balance.

Dr. Barber explained that we may disengage or “recover” from work in four ways: (1) “psychological detachment”; (2) “mastery experiences” (such as hobbies or home projects); (3) relaxation; and (4) sleep. Unfortunately, job demands and technologies that bridge work and home can make it difficult to achieve a healthy sense of disconnection from work.

Her words rang true to me. When it comes to work-life balance, and applying the four modes of healthy disengagement, I often fail miserably.

Academic work and careers

I understand why folks outside of academe believe that we professors have a pretty cushy deal. After all, most of us are not in the classroom for hours upon hours each day, we have a lot of flexibility in our schedules, and we appear to have “summers off.”

In reality, however, professors who are truly engaged in their work often are extraordinarily busy. Personal motivation, institutional and professional expectations, and choices concerning one’s activities combine to fill up time, and commitments can stack up very quickly.

I know how this feels. For most of the spring and early summer, I’ve been on a recurring weekly cycle of maybe four days at home in Boston, with the remainder of the week on the road, mostly to fulfill various speaking and meeting commitments.

Even during weeks that I’m not scheduled to travel, I’ve been getting anxious by Tuesday, conditioned to anticipate my next trip. And to keep up with things, my “road warrior” kit of gadgets I take on trips keeps expanding, sometimes including a laptop, a tablet, and a smartphone — with all the cables and rechargers that come with them.

I am extremely grateful for the many opportunities to do work that I care about. However, the recent pace has left me feeling tired and frazzled — not to mention way behind on projects that are important to me.

On being “crazy busy”

And here’s a rub: It’s not as if a gun was held to my head to accept these various invitations.

In a recent piece for New York Times, Tim Kreider explores the phenomenon of being “crazy busy,” starting with kids whose every hour is booked up with activities, and extending to adults whose daily schedules seemingly offer no respite. On a personal level, he nails the fact that — at least at the point of saying “yes” or “no” — many adults who claim they have no free moments had some choice in the matter:

It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

His dime store therapist insight resonates as well:

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

I plead guilty. To me, creating a meaningful life is what our time on Earth is all about. But too often this has translated into overcommitting myself. When I tell people “I’m swamped,” I must concede that some of this stems from my own choices.

There’s always more

We continue to ratchet up expectations for occupational and professional success. We worship the mantra of “work hard, play hard.” If you don’t keep doing more, you’ll fall behind and never catch up — or perhaps miss out on that “big opportunity,” even if it’s something you don’t necessarily want.

It all fits well with this era of hyper-capitalism that sadly has become a cultural norm.

Some people thrive on this lifestyle and are much better than me at juggling all their commitments. But for many of the rest of us, a more balanced way of living may be the healthier option. It requires engaging in some personal triage to sort it all out, but this process alone can be a valuable one.

Hmm, this gives me something to think about during my next plane flight…

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